Bertrand Russell on the value of philosophy

I came across Jacob Schriftman’s post about having read Bertrand Russell’s The Problems of Philosophy.

Below is Schriftman’s interesting comment about the nature of The Problems of Philosophy is followed by extracts of the final chapter of Russell’s book where he is questioning the value of philosophy.

Perhaps a more apt title for the book would be The Problems of Epistemology or even An Introduction to Epistemology, since Russell almost exclusively deals with the problems of our perception and knowledge of reality. (Epistemology is the study of the possibilities and limitations of human knowledge.)

My favorite part of the book, however, was the last chapter, in which Russell asks what value there is in philosophy.

Philosophy, like all other studies, aims primarily at knowledge. … But it cannot be maintained that philosophy has had any very great measure of success in its attempts to provide definite answers to its questions. … [However] to a great extent, the uncertainty of philosophy is more apparent than real: those questions which are already capable of definite answers are placed in the sciences, while those only to which, at present, no definite answer can be given, remain to form the residue which is called philosophy.

This is, however, only a part of the truth concerning the uncertainty of philosophy. There are many questions—and among them those that are of the profoundest interest to our spiritual life—which, so far as we can see, must remain insoluble to the human intellect unless its powers become of quite a different order from what they are now. … Yet, however slight may be the hope of discovering an answer, it is part of the business of philosophy to continue the consideration of such questions, to make us aware of their importance, to examine all the approaches to them, and to keep alive that speculative interest in the universe which is apt to be killed by confining ourselves to definitely ascertainable knowledge.

The value of philosophy is, in fact, to be sought largely in its very uncertainty.

Philosophy, though unable to tell us with certainty what is the true answer to the doubts which it raises, is able to suggest many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom. Thus, while diminishing our feeling of certainty as to what things are, it greatly increases our knowledge as to what they may be; it removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never travelled into the region of liberating doubt, and it keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect.

The private world of instinctive interests is a small one, set in the midst of a great and powerful world which must, sooner or later, lay our private world in ruins. Unless we can so enlarge our interests as to include the whole outer world, we remain like a garrison in a beleagured fortress, knowing that the enemy prevents escape and that ultimate surrender is inevitable. In such a life there is no peace, but a constant strife between the insistence of desire and the powerlessness of will. In one way or another, if our life is to be great and free, we must escape this prison and this strife.

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About Christopher J
I teach English, make digital images, write and encourage others. I believe.

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